ONCE in a while Tiger Woods will open his mouth and give the impression that behind all the technobabble there exists a human being with something resembling a personality. There was one such moment yesterday when he made his return to the Open championship after a one-year absence; fleeting, but welcome all the same.
He was asked about Nelson Mandela, who today celebrates his 94th birthday, and Woods told a story about meeting the great man in South Africa in 1998. He’d go into Tiger-mode later on – not answering the question he was asked and then saying, “That help you out?” – but when talking about Mandela he was engaged momentarily.
“I got invited to his home,” he began. “They said, ‘Just go into this living room’ and we walk in there and I look at my dad and I said, ‘Hey pops, do you feel that? It feels different in here’. He said, ‘Yeah, I feel the same way’. We’re just standing there looking at some of the things on the wall and over in the corner was president Mandela. He was over there just meditating in the corner and it was a different feeling in the room. He has such a presence and aura about him. He’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met.”
Woods seems pretty relaxed at the moment, in word and deed. Those of us who thought we’d sooner see elephants flying over Lytham than Tiger signing autographs have been taken aback. The man who has singularly failed to communicate with the crowds throughout his career has actually been giving a little back this week. “I do that every week,” he said. “Nothing unusual.” Only it is.
Just after 11am, Woods was at the top table and talking about a time before major championships and cocktail waitresses, before greatness and disgrace. Suddenly he is 20 years old again and a little uncertain. He’s shot 75-75 at Augusta and has missed the cut. Somebody called Randy Leen has beaten him to the low amateur title at the US Open. He crosses the Atlantic and shoots 81 in the first round of the Scottish Open at Carnoustie. The boy they’re all saying is the new Nicklaus has played 16 professional events and has missed the cut ten times. He arrives at Lytham for the Open of 1996 “still kind of iffy about whether I should turn pro or not.”
You could see his point. Five holes into his first experience of Lytham and he was six over par and going nowhere but home. He signed for a 75 and left the course in a Montyesque huff, speaking to nobody, not even his father, so he said. Next day? Different story. Eight birdies, three bogeys, round in 66, his best score in a professional tournament to that point and the performance that convinced him that he could survive at this level after all. “I got hot in the second round,” he recalled yesterday. “I think I made seven birdies on an 11 or 12-hole stretch. At the time I tied Iain Pyman’s record for low amateur and I thought that was a pretty great achievement. The Open that year basically pushed me towards turning pro versus going back to college. It gave me so much confidence that I could do it at high level, that I could shoot those scores and I could play against the top players in the world on a very difficult track.” Or as Earl Woods put it: “Tiger’s coming out party.”
It’s hard to know what to make of Woods’ challenge this week. Look at his form line and you can understand why he’s the favourite to win a fourth Claret Jug – he has won three times this year – but look a bit closer and there’s reason to believe that he won’t even get close given the missed cuts – at the Wells Fargo and the Greenbrier last time out – and the moderate finishes – 40th at Augusta, 40th at the Players and 21st at the US Open – that have pockmarked his season.
Why the extremes of high and low? “If I knew the answer I’d tell you,” he said. “I just keep trying to get better. I’ve had a few wins this year, which is good. But I’ve also had a few poor performances as well. I’m just trying to get more consistent.”
Woods hasn’t played links golf in two years – injury having taken him out of the field at Royal St George’s – and he hasn’t been in the shake-up in an Open since 2007 when he was four shots behind the play-off mark set by Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia. Three Opens to his name, though. You never forget how. That’s what he’s banking on. New swing, but he’s looking for the old Tiger to return.
The game has changed since he last won a major, of course. The majors are being dished out like snuff at a wake, 15 different guys having taken the last 15, with nine of those being first-time major winners. When Darren Clarke, a 150-1 shot, wins an Open long after everybody thought it was all over for him then you know the world is turning. Before him, it was the previously unmapped Louis Oosthuizen. Before that, Tom Watson almost won, for goodness sake.
This trend is repeated across all four majors; largely unheralded men taking the big prizes with the kind of regularity that we’ve never seen in the game before. Why?
“The fields are deeper, no doubt. We’re having to shoot some pretty low scores in general. You need to have a hot week at the right time. That’s what it comes down to. There are more guys now that have a chance to win major championships than ever before and I think that will just continue to be the way. What do we have, 15 [different major winners] in a row? It just goes to show you the depth of the field. Everything is getting a little bit closer.”
The Open remains Woods’ favourite championship. “Well, it’s the history of the game. It’s our first one. I think that shot-making creativity is paramount when you play a links course and that’s something that’s taken away in the modern course design. We don’t see that. Everything is in the air.
“Here you have so many different options and a five-degree wind change changes an entire golf course and changes your game plan. Two out of three days [in practice] I’ve played different winds. On the 7th I hit driver, 7-iron one day and the next day I hit driver, 3-wood, sand-wedge. So it can play that way.
“This is one of the more difficult courses we play. As far as shot-making, it tests us. It tests us a lot because we have to shape the golf ball both ways. It really tests your ability to hit shots and hit them the proper distances more so than most links courses.
“It’s one of the reasons why the list of champions here have all been just wonderful ball-strikers because you have to be able to shape the ball both ways.
“Everything is magnified. On the ground if you hit a draw versus a fade it doesn’t just go five yards further, it can go possibly 30, 40 or 50 yards further. This is something you’re trying to figure out.
“That’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I got a chance to experience my first links golf on probably two of the best links golf courses you could possibly experience it on – Carnoustie and St Andrews back-to-back. And just fell in love with it right away.”
Like everybody else this week, he speaks of Lytham’s difficulty with a mixture of dread and awe. How many bunkers out there? Two hundred and six.
“If you hit the ball in there it’s going to go up against the face because it goes in there with some steam and you’re pitching out sideways, or sometimes even backwards. The two years I played here [22nd in 1996 and 25th in 2001] we didn’t see it like this. This is different. The rough is more lush, the fairways are softer and the ball is not chasing as much. It’s a slower golf course. The bunkers are penal. And it’s something we’re just going to have to plod our way around.”
Asked if these major-less years have caused him anxiety, Woods smiles and said they haven’t. What about impatience, then? Not at all, he replied. You wonder about that. You really do. Tiger would rather gouge out his own eyeballs than admit to a desperate and head-wrecking longing for another major, but it’s there. He wouldn’t be Tiger if it wasn’t.